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Pulling on the Green Jersey – the best fans in the world?

It was an incredible sight to see. It was a sea of green, jumping up and down rhythmically on all sides of the ground, backs to the play, singing and supporting their team. It was close to 30,000 Ireland fans doing the “Poznan” at the European Championship against Italy supporting their boys in green.

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There was a small pocket of Italian fans in the corner supporting the Azzuri. They probably had just 10% of the numbers supporting Ireland. At the end of the game the Italian players (as did the Irish players) showed their appreciation of the atmosphere generated by the Irish supporters during their lap of honour. It was clear from Italian captain Gianluigi Buffon’s expression that the goalkeeper was impressed by it all giving the Irish fans multiple thumbs up.

Spain, current World and European champions, could muster only a fraction of the Irish support in the game in Gdansk that will be remembered of course for the 4-0 result for Spain. It will also be remembered for the fantastic rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ by the Irish support at the conclusion of the game. The best supporters in the world they say. They may say it but I don’t believe it.

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While John Delaney, the FAI, the PFAI and the Green Army were out supporting the national team in Poland, at home another League of Ireland club ceased to exist, their results “expunged” for the season. Monaghan United went to the wall on Monday, not that too many noticed.

What other league in Europe has a club just disappear mid-season? The United Chairman stated the lack of a main sponsor and the dwindling support that forced their hand. Monaghan have been playing in front of average crowds of around 600 but had one game where less than 200 paid in. Over 25,000 Irish fans made it to Poland for the each of the three Ireland games. That 25,000 figure would represent the total gate over a whole 16 home game League of Ireland season.

Compared with every other squad in Poland and Ukraine, the Irish squad at UEFA EURO 2012 was unique in that we had no players from our own domestic league. I’m not advocating that we should have League of Ireland players in the squad for the sake of it but it does say something about the state of Irish football that there were no players from our own league.

People say they won’t go to the League of Ireland as the standard isn’t good enough with the league being “rubbish”. Results in Europe over recent years would dispute this and I’m not just talking about Shamrock Rovers’ qualification for the group stages of the Europa League. Six of the original squad called up by Giovanni Trapattoni played in the League of Ireland; Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Stephen Ward, David Forde, James McClean and the injured Keith Fahey. As an aside the last time Ireland played in Poland in 2005, the squad did contain one league of Ireland player, Jason Byrne.

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The fact is though that if fans don’t come through the turnstiles in sufficient numbers in Ireland the game cannot progress. The aim should be for players to emerge through the League and not just get farmed off to the UK at 15 in the hope that they will make it. If players are good enough, they will get the chance to play on higher stage like those players in the Ireland squad who progressed from the League. A certain Roy Keane began his playing career in the League of Ireland with a club, Cobh Ramblers, which have since dropped out of the league due to financial issues.

Just last month, I travelled up to Gortakeegan for my first and, as it now turns out, my last visit to Gortakeegan. Getting petrol in one of the M1 service stations I looked around and saw a car full of lads in blue track suits. Inside were a few more and then I spotted their manager, Roddy Collins. It was the Monaghan team travelling up from Dublin where they lived and trained for their home game in Monaghan. I was reliably informed that United had just one local player in their squad. Maybe this was one of the myriad of reasons the Monaghan public shunned going to see their recently promoted team in the Premier Division of the Airtricity League.

Clubs will prosper if fans come in sufficient numbers to see them. If they can produce their own talent and give a sense that this team represents the area, fans will invest their time and hence their money in the team. Clubs like Cork City, Sligo Rovers, Derry City, Dundalk and even Limerick FC have great potential outside of Dublin with their catchment areas and sporting culture.

The population of Dublin can certainly support a number of vibrant teams from the capital. Shamrock Rovers are the current success story in the League but that is being helped by developing roots in the local area of Tallaght. Having a manager and three of the playing squad from Tallaght is not a hindrance either.

The League needs to continue to promote itself to try and attract new fans. No, we can’t necessarily compete with British football but we can attract some of that floating support to, in addition to watching their UK team from a barstool, get out and see some live football at their local club. We need to get the wider Irish sporting public to be patriotic, to pull on the Green jersey (or red, white, blue etc.) and support their local League of Ireland football club.

Not quite an endless summer

The Euro 2012 theme song by Oceana is called ‘Endless Summer’. Well for Ireland, the Euros have seemed like a series of endless defeats
with three losses in our three games. It certainly wasn’t what we hoping for after doing so well to qualify for Euros.

Journeying out to the tournament just over ten days ago it seemed like it would be an endless tournament as I contemplated optimistically how to get to the knock out stages; fly home and back out or work out of our company’s Warsaw office for a few days. As it is, those Ireland quarter-final, semi-final and final tickets are simply a souvaneer now after Ireland’s three defeats. The players flew back this morning and the fans are making their way own home via campervan (imagine how depressing that journey is!) or on flights from Poznan, Berlin or Warsaw where I’ve travelled to.

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Having said all that though it has been a great trip to Poland who were excellent hosts. From the bloke who walked me 10 minutes out of his way to help find my Pension in Poznan to the guy who pulled in and gave three of our group a lift to the game when their tram broke down yesterday. The Poznan and Gdansk stadiums were excellent. We got to see some historical sights, have a week long sing-song and to see one of the best teams ever to play this game.

I’ve been to a few of these tournaments but only one until this one following Ireland. That trip to Japan & Korea in 2002 was by far the most enjoyable tournament for me. On the pitch it couldn’t have been more different than this one. Back then Ireland put in some impressive displays, getting out of the group and were unlucky not to beat Spain. Having said that we also spent a lot of time talking about Roy Keane in 2002 as well as in 2012!

Going as a neutral to tournament games means you don’t have the dispiriting depression following a defeat. You can celebrate with the winning supporters and enjoy the game for what is in front of you. I’d still prefer though to be at a tournament supporting me own team even if they arent winning. It would just be better to be singing joyfully about a good Ireland performance or result rather than the sympathy singing we have had a lot of in Poland.

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The atmosphere at last nights game against Italy was up there with the best I’ve been in. The crowd reacts to what they see on the pitch and thankfully that wasn’t the concession of an early goal for Ireland that we had in the earlier games. The sight of the 25,000 plus Irish fans “doing the Poznan” was superb.

The team put in a markedly better performance than in the other two defeats but we still finshed rock bottom of the group. It was a table that was not “upside down” as some fans chanted but accurately reflected the gulf in class between Ireland and the other teams we faced in what was probably the hardest group we had been played in ever at a finals.

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The fans sung long into the night back in Poznan’s Old Town. It was as if we had won the game so it was the type of singing that a former captain of Ireland would not approve of. Ireland rode our luck in qualifying and we got what we deserved when we did qualify. Whether this bunch of players under this manager can qualify for the next tournament is the question. With Germany and Swedan in our qualification group, it is a big ask. It is doubtful that we will be cheering on our boys in brazil but let’s hope so.

The next Euros seems a lifetime away. With France 2016 having 24 teams, we will have as good a chance to qualify as ever before. Many of the current team and our manager will have retired by the time it comes around. Will we have the coach and squad to get us to France? Might hold off on booking that campervan and ferry tickets to France just yet! It’s not an endless summer so it’s time to get back to work…

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A Toast from the coast to our Hosts

This morning the Ireland team flew from Gdansk down to Poznan for tomorrow night’s match against Italy. It’s a four hours train journey for some of us as we leave the coast and Gdansk to return to Poznan having spent a very pleasant few days here on the Baltic coast (except for a certain 90 minutes).

Our hosts Poland are also out. Their 1-0 defeat by the Czech Republic last night consigned them to last place in their group. We watched the game in Sopot. We had a side bet on first goal scorer and so I don’t think the Poles around us enjoyed one of us celebrating when the Czechs got the winner from Petr Jiracek.

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By last night most of the hoards of Irish had moved on from Sopot, where the Irish team have been staying on the Baltic. The weather has been living up to location with rain and relatively low temperatures for most of the time here. The boozy Irish had been replaced by the slightly less boozy Poles on this night compared to Sopot the previous Wednesday night when we were there till all hours.

It is a pity that one of the hosts is out and it is up to Ukraine tonight now to see if they can keep a host nation in the tournament. We had watched the Polish draw with Russia in the Poznan Fanzone and that was a great occasion last week. The place was filled to capacity by Poles wearing their national colours with pride. Bedecked in red and white, there were 30,000 fans watching the game on the big screens. Lots of Polska chants and one that seemed to be “about a big semi-colon” but don’t think I got that right.

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At national anthem time the locals booed the Russian anthem and unsurprisingly didn’t seem overly impressed with the massive tier sized “This is Russia” banner that the visiting fans unveiled on what was Russian Day.

For their own anthem, we were treated to a very loud rendition of the Polish anthem by all the Poles in the Fanzone. It was like being at the stadium. Polish striker Robert Lewandowki was very popular with the locals having played some of his football with Lech Poznan before moving on to Borussia Dotmund. His team found themselves 1-0 down when the impressive Alan Dzagoev scored for Russia. When the ball hit the back of the net the Fanzone fell eerily quiet.

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In the second half, Poland raised their game and the atmosphere was intensive. That intensity was due in part to the excitable Polish commentator whose hyper style sounded like every square pass was a shot on target! Add in the high pitch screaming from the younger Polish fans in attendance and it was quite some noise.

That decibel level went through the roof when Jakub Blaszcykowski ended a fine Polish passing move by powering home an equaliser. The place went mental and it didn’t seem to matter that we were Irish as we were hugged and high fived as if we were Polish born and reared. Sadly Franciszek Smuda’s side couldn’t find a winner in that game and that ultimately proved their downfall.

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We have been staying about half way between Gdansk and Sopot in a place half way between a hotel and a hospital! Nice rooms but all a bit communist. We had taken the opportunity when in Gdansk to visit the famous shipyards. The excellent Paths to Freedom exhibition was well worth visiting at the formerly named Lenin Shipyards close to the shipyard gates where Lech Walesa had made speeches during the days of Solidarity.

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We also took the ferry out through the shipyards to Westerplatte. On the way we could see the many abandoned cranes and warehouses in the massive shipyard that now only has a small amount of work going on in it. At Westerplatte we saw where the German battleship Schleswig-Holsten fired the first salvos of World War II. The garrison of just 170 Polish troops held out for a week at the start of September 1939 against the Germany navy and Luftwaffe.
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It is probably too late for the Irish team to make history at this championship but there is still lots to play for tomorrow. Italy require a win to go through to the quarter final while the Irish team will want to leave a good final impression on the tournament from their football rather than just from the colourful singing Irish fans off the pitch. Trapattoni, his team and the fans want to end the tournament with a win. It will be a big ask.

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Categories: EURO 2012, Travel Tags: ,

We had nightmares & songs to sing

June 15, 2012 1 comment

It was all a bit humbling really. Spain came and reigned supreme as the limitations of Giovanni Trapattoni’s system and our playing squad against Spain’s fluid flowing football was visible for all to see. Ireland were torn apart 4-0 by the World and European Champions and dumped out of the Euro 2012 tournament after just two games.

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Our only consolation was the magnificent support given to the team from the stands. This wasn’t a ‘sing when your winning’ support like Spain seemed to have but the singing of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ by the Irish fans at the games conclusion was simply incredible. Despite being 4-0 down and heading out of the tournament, it just got louder and louder. For me it will live long in the memory and it was an amazing experience to be part of.

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However, whilstwe sung about “dreams and sings to sing”, the players probably felt like it was a nightmare they were in as Spain took apart Ireland scoring three second half goals to go with their early first half strike. It was a very impressive performance by La Roja who were never really put under pressure by the boys in green. Torres (2), Silva and Fabergas did the damage for the defending champions.

The Simon Cox experiment didn’t really work and Plan B after half time involving Jonathan Walters wasn’t much better. Having said that whatever team or formation Ireland put out on a wet night on Gdansk, playing against opposition of this calibre was always going to a very difficult task.

The road down to the main square in Gdansk and around the Neptune fountain was full of Irish fans from lunchtime on match day. The trains, planes and camper vans had deposited the Green Army in the very north of Poland. Some Spanish fans wandered through the Square and supporters and locals alike were treated to a few Poznans as well as the full repertoire of Ireland songs from Trap’s Army. Whether a team of Gary Breens or one containing any of the 12 days of Christmas/Paul McGrath would have helped Ireland in the game is doubtful.

There was talk ahead of the game of whether the pitch would be watered and the weather gods conspired to make it wet. In the stands, the Green Army outnumbered the Spanish probably three to one. In excess of 25,000 were dressed in green and they were silenced once again like against Croatia by an early goal with Spain scoring in the opening four minutes.

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Spain passed and passed and passed while Ireland huffed and puffed but got nowhere near to blowing Spain’s defence down. It was a real master class in passing by Spain. They could afford to bring Cesc Fabergas off the bench where as we had Paul Green and that probably summed up the gulf in class between the teams. One of the biggest cheers of the night was for the introduction of young James McClean but even the young Derry man couldn’t influence the outcome of the game at that stage.

I’ve heard comment before about it would be better if we didn’t qualify for these things because once we are at a big tournament we would get hammered. I certainly didn’t think we would get hammered but after just two games conceeding seven goals and only scoring one, that has all the hall marks of a hammering. I’d much prefer for Ireland to be here though than being at home but these results have been hard to take after the long build up and sense of occasion about the Euros.

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It is better to be at the big boys table at these feasts of football than watching on the telly. The pity is that in Poland we were being served up as Spain’s starters to be consumed by their crisp passing football. What lessons can we learn from this I don’t know as we face into our final game of the tournament on Monday and the rocky road to Rio to come after. Ireland will be remembered by the fans off the pitch rather than the performances on it when this competition ends.

The final few minutes of the game were played out under the soundtrack, not of the celebrating Spanish fans, but to the Irish in the stands. It was a powerful rendition of “The Fields of Athenry”. The haunting mournful ballad echoed around the amber walls of the Gdansk arena. Ireland will be haunted by this result for a long time to come.

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Careful now – the policing in Poznan

Poznan’s main square last Sunday was some sight to behold. You were either wearing red & white or green or else you were in the wrong location.

The thousands of Croatian fans had their red & white colours on show with red top hats, red & white chequer-board overalls or a Hrvatska flag wrapped around their waists. For the Irish it was Trapattoni masks, green wigs and lots of tricolour face paint.

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As is usual for an Ireland away game, the main square was the focal point for the pre-match festivities for the Green Army. The difference this time was that the square was shared with the legion of Croatian fans who had mobilised from the Balkans. In Poznan’s historic main square, from every point hung a Croat or Irish flag and both sets of fans mingled freely, chatting and discussing the finer points of their teams playing 4-4-2 or so it seemed!

They sung, we sung. They drank, we drank. They were definitely the more confident of the two sets of fans on the outcome of the game and as it turned out that confidence was well justified after the 3-1 win to Slaven Bilic’s men.

There was a third force also in and around the main square throughout our time in Pozan and that was the police. Pockets of Poznan police were strategically located around the main square in full riot gear wearing helmet and body armour including shin guards a lot bigger than Robbie Keane has. At night, the lights of the square reflected off their visors and riot shields that they carried. Some also had tear gas canisters and rubber bullet guns visible.

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Each cohort had someone with a small digital camcorder recording the fans around them. They will have lots of footage of Irish fans shoes in the air singing “shoes off for the boys in green!”

I’ve seldom seen such a visible police presence away from a stadium ahead of a game and they were called into action on the eve of the match. There were lots of rumours about neo-nazis and Polish football fans fighting amongs themselves. I saw the police backup arrive under blue sirens and screeching tires from 20 or so police vans, jumping out to line up in formation. It seems they were probably being deployed to protect Irish fans.

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They did move on elsewhere some Irish fans who were jumping around under a massive umbrella in an outside bar in the main square too vigorously but that’s not exactly major trouble. What is in no doubt though is that ten Poles and three Irish were arrested that night but the local mayor played it down saying that with that amount of fans and that amount of drink it was inevitable.

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Having said all that the police were still happy enough to be photographed beside smiling Irish fans who were mostly amused by the sight of all the robocops. The moment of the night had to go to the two Irish lads pictured in front of a big group of riot police in the square holding up a couple of home made signs saying in Father Ted style “Careful now” and “Nothing to see here”! Do tournaments miss out when Ireland don’t make it. Probably and Moments like that seem to justify the self-proclaimed ‘best fans in the world’ tag.

Turns out you can beat the Irish

June 11, 2012 1 comment

So after 14 games unbeaten, it turns out you can beat the Irish. Croatia were worthy 3-1 winners against Ireland in a wet Poznan on Sunday night as Giovanni Trapattoni’s men were comprehensively beaten by the men from the Balkans.

Irish fans, myself included, went into the game hoping to at least pick up a point but after this result leaving the ground we were as deflated as the many plastic hammers amongst the 20,000 or so Irish at Sunday’s game.

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The previous night the police deployed in force in the centre of Poznan as there was some trouble involving some Poles but there was no policing required to seperate the Irish and Croat fans on match day. They mingled from early morning in Poznan’s main square, in and outside the stadium and in the post match singsong back in the town centre.

During the afternoon both Croat and Irish flags hung from every vantage point in the huge main square including off the roof of some of the surrounding buildings and off several statues in the square. It was football fans at their finest as the singing, fueled by plenty of local brew naturally, echoed around the historic centre of the old town.

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Many fans headed out to ground early to watch the first game in Group C that saw Spain equalise against Italy to claim a 1-1 draw. The few local bars around the out of town stadium were rammed as fans watched the game and also took shelter from the rain that began at the kick off of that earlier match.

Inside the ground when the fans entered the stadium, it was clear which sections were supporting either team with the blocks of Croatian red and white and Irish green fans visible for all to see. The Irish team were first to emerge to check out the stadium looking smart in their grey suits. Croatia were next in their more casual track suits. The players took photos and were no doubt tweeting about what they saw including the huge number of Ireland flags hanging all around the ground.

The Ireland team line up was read out by ‘comedian’ Karl Spain – well at least it wasn’t Declan King – and we were “treated” to our own little opening ceremony ahead of kick off with lots of flags and people running around in formation. The usual blaring music was trying to drown out the fans singing as well it seemed.

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Thankfully both sets of fans were able to be heard singing their anthems and it was a robust rendition of Amhran na bhFiann – which was hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff – as the green clad army sung for themselves, the eleven men on the pitch and the close to a million Ireland fans watching at home.

Pity the team couldn’t have taken that energy into the opening period as they conceded a dreadful early goal. Given seemed slow to get across, possibly unsighted, to get to an angled header by Mario Mandzukic and with what three minutes or so on the clock Giovanni Trapatonni’s men were 1-0 down and off to the worst possible start.

In their last appearance at a major championship Ireland came back from going 1-0 down early to equalise on three occasions and claim a draw and while they were able to conjure up a goal on Sunday they would go onto concede two more on this night.

The fans did get the opportunity to celebrate a goal as Sean St Ledger got his head on free kick from an Aiden McGeady centre. The goal seemed too good to believe but there was no offside flag or refs whistle for an infringement and as it sunk in that the goal would stand, the fans in the stands erupted. They were soon doing the Poznan as the fans behind Shay Given’s goal turned their backs to the play and jumped up and down in unison. It probably looked spectacular but with my back to the majority of the Irish support as I did the Poznan it was hard to see but when in Poznan it had to be done!

Ireland spurred on by the goal created a number of chances but Croatia always looked dangerous with Spurs’ Luka Modric dictating the play. The Irish fans had travelled from far and wide to see the game but for Ireland to go further in the tournament we needed to get more creative on the ball.

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Beside me on my left sat a friend who had taken a break-from-his-break of travelling in South East Asia to come to Poland (leaving his girlfriend behind to do so). On my right was a father his 16 year old son from London. The tri-colours had locations from all around the globe as well as a few witty retorts. But if Angela Merkel thought we at work, out on the pitch the Irish players weren’t working hard enough on keeping the ball. Under pressure they seemed to find a man while we ended up at the back lumping it long when pressed hard.

Jelavic’s goal just before had half time, which had a hint of off side, just knocked the stuffing out of the team. It came when Glen Whelan inexplicably let the ball run by him to allow The Croats the ball. When the former Rangers man eventually got the ball at his feet, he made no mistake making it 2-1 at the break. Trap sent his team out after thr break looking for an equaliser but the early second half goal from Mario Mandzukic, as he got his second and Croatia’s third, pretty much ended the contest.

Trap made a double switch bringing on Simon Cox and Jonathan Walters, who was particularly effective, and the Irish did go close at end with Keith Andrews. However, they scarcely deserved anything out of the game as Croatia held onto the ball with ease using their two goal cushion very effectively.

The Irish fans kept singing at the end and the final whistle had one of those ‘glorious defeat’ style renditions of the Fields of Athenry. As the fans in green filed out of stadium, the thoughts of reaching the knock out stages in Ukraine were as far away as Kiev is from Dublin.

Some started singing about “you’re hardly gonna believe it, we’re going to win Group C” and I certainly dont believe it. Ireland will need to at least avoid defeat on Thursday against World and European champions Spain but they probably need a win now. “You’ll never beat the Irish” will be fully put to the test in Gdansk against La Roja. Ole Ole!

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Categories: EURO 2012, Travel Tags:

The Rocky Road to Poland (via Berlin)

June 10, 2012 2 comments

On Saturday I joined the mass exodus of 20,000 or so Irish fans from Ireland to Poland. Last one out turn off the lights & all that. My route to the Euros was via Berlin as that was one of the cheaper options when the draw was made back in December. I was one of those people who had about eight flights open on my computer when the draw was made. Berlin was booked quickly when Ireland came out of the hat in Group C meaning our first game was against Croatia in Poznan.

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Last time Ireland played in Poland I also travelled to that game via Berlin. That was back in 2005 when Brian Kerr was in charge of Ireland. That was the game that looked like it would be Roy Keane’s return to the Ireland team after Saipan but an injury ahead of the friendly in Bydgoszcz meant he didn’t make the trip in the end.

One player who did travel was the striker who is currently second in the all time goalscorer charts in the League of Ireland, Jason Byrne. He came on as a late sub in this dour 0-0 draw and as the song goes he “went all the way to Poland and never touched the ball.” Well I can confirm that he did actually touch the ball but it had just run out of play when he got the touch so that doesn’t count. The Polish police were deployed during the game not because of any trouble involving the Irish fans but to separate rival Polish fans from each other. I’d probably take a similar 0-0 draw against Croatia this coming Sunday.

On Friday, one Irish fan (Damien Coughlan) left his match tickets behind in Dublin Airport but through twitter he will be united with them today. Whether the four Irish fans who checked in but were never made my flight on Saturday morning will make it to Poland like Mr. Coughlan’s tickets is another matter. 40 minutes later having off loaded their bags we were on our way to Berlin.

I was able to see some of the city’s sights on arrival. Berlin was setting up for watching their national team play Portugal with a massive fan park behind the Brandenburg Gate. Lots of green around the place with Irish fans and lots of Germans wearing their Addidas green away kit.

Next I wandered down to the Jewish holocaust memorial adjacent to Potsdamer Platz. Lots of concrete columns is always going to get my engineering interest but walking through the maze of 2711 columns is a slightly unsettling experience. Thats the point I suppose. The museum in the basement building below the field of Stelae traces the terror policy & prosecution of the Jews. Not many museums where people walk around in silence but this was one I them.

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From there it was a short walk to the Topography of Terror & the longest section of Berlin Wall still left standing. This is located adjacent to where the most important institutions of the Nazi apparatus were. The permanent photographic exhibition details on the central institutions of the SS and police during the Third Reich.

After all that history it was off to the Hauptbanhof to take the train to Poznan along with a hundred or so other Ireland fans. The lovely Magda was very popular as she pushed her drinks trolley through the train. She and the other German and Poles were serenaded all the way to Poznan with Irish songs but what they made of “The Cat is in the sack” song I don’t know!

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